Genre: Historical fiction
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5 of 5 stars)
Not all books can leave emotional aftershocks in their wakes. Not all novels possess a haunting two-edged beauty, the kind that offers a poignant balm right after inflicting a hundred little bruises on your heart. Not all stories can render you so weak-kneed with wonder that you have no choice but to let it brand itself as your literary waterloo.
Indeed, not all books are like All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr’s tour de force that reminded me of the very reasons why I still love trudging through contemporary literature.
The novel is a twofold tale of young souls ensnared in the horrors of World War II. On one hand it tells the story of blind French girl Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a museum locksmith’s daughter who joins the resistance and may be in possession of a dangerous jewel being hunted down by Nazi looters. On the other, it narrates the life of German orphan Werner Pfennig whose talent in radio mechanics wins him a place in a brutal academy for the Hitler Youth and in the battlefield as a resistance tracker. It is in war-torn Saint-Malo, France, that their paths converge.
I must admit that at first, All the Light We Cannot See felt like an impenetrable fortress to me. Doerr’s writing style deviates from the ones I have encountered before; it felt tad baroque and its chapters are cleaved in staccato sequences, making it a misfit among the tones of many twee bestsellers nowadays. But once I managed to adjust (possibly with the help of changing my reading environment from the chaos of rush-hour commute to pre-bedtime hush), going through the pages is as easy as dipping a hand into water. Since then, I could not remember finishing a passage without admiring its almost lyrical structure.
The imagery is so vivid that the heroine’s blindness does not appear to be an inconvenience at all. Every description would make you feel like the power of your senses, save the sight, is magnified a hundredfold. Here, Marie-Laure believes slices of peaches taste like “wedges of wet sunlight”; here, soldiers trapped in darkness for days tremble to catch a glimpse of starlight like they needed it to live, to breathe.
There’s dichotomy in it, too. The sentences might carry the exquisiteness of poetry but the grisly truths embedded in them uncover a kind of ugliness you would not want to look in the eye; it is war, after all. This is especially evident in Werner’s chapters. Descriptions fade out from the sunflowers’ “praying heads” to the piles of corpses cushioning prisoners’ train cars, from majestic breeds of birds to the bleeding bullet hole in the head of an innocent little girl. Doerr utilized his knowledge in just about everything—radios, diamonds, literature, avian species, puzzles, guns, locks—and stretched his spectrum of adjectives to bring clear pictures of WWII from two very different vantage points.
Plot-wise, the book unfurls slowly. The scenes do not always charge along with action, but the way Doerr cuts back and forth in time provides a steady supply of thrill and suspense. Doerr also managed to squeeze in a little fantasy-esque element that gave the story a hint of modernist flavor.
Its ensemble of characters showcased lifelike multidimensionality. More than flesh and bones, they are made up of layers of idiosyncrasies, fears, doubts, dreams, and hopes—the last two being undervalued commodities whose owners often get ridiculed. The leads are well-shaped. Instead of making Marie-Laure a walking magnet for sympathy, Doerr wrote her as an incarnation of strength and childlike hunger for adventure. Many characters recognize her courage and power despite her sightlessness, an assessment that she often seems to downplay.
Werner, my favorite, is a lithe embodiment of conflict-marred innocence. Marie-Laure may be the easiest to build emotional skeins with, but Werner for me still pops up as the most human. He is overflowing with dreams and hopes but the circumstances he is in caused apprehension to be an all-pervading disease in his system, making him clamp his aspirations down. He trades sheer compliance in their stead, in effect stripping him off the stereotypical brash hero mold. It is as if he stops believing he owns his life. Only when he crosses paths with Marie-Laure does he manage to wake up and convert all these thoughts, snagging a proper hero status in the process.
The combination of Marie-Laure’s unshakeable self-assurance and Werner’s meek surrender to austere rules does not only reflect a trait-masculinity swap, it also displays Doerr’s deftness in illustrating facets of the human heart and how fragile they are when faced with something that forces to alter them. The duo’s main attributes, including the chief changes in them, are captured in a piece of their brief conversation:
[Marie-Laure] says, “When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”He says, “Not in years. But today. Today maybe I did.”
I treasure this unconventional Boy-Meets-Girl moment unreservedly. More than five hundred pages and their meeting only lasted for what, a couple of chapters or so? It was not forced. It was short albeit magical, and the connections leading to that one moment is adeptly weaved by the author. It also reflects a grain of bittersweet truth in life: the universe might ink thousands of prologues and it will still hold no promise that your once-upon-a-time will last more than half-a-page, nor will it wrap up in a true happy-ever-after.
Aside from the two main protagonists, I have also grown to like Jutta, Werner’s precocious sister who intrepidly questions things about the important happenings in that era; and the German soldier Frank Volkheimer, who will probably tog off almost all items in a villain qualifications list except that he turns out to be a ‘friendly ally’ version of Goliath to Werner’s David. (I understand Volkheimer is taciturn by nature, but I wished the readers are given more glimpses of his insights!)
Just like the puzzles and miniature scale models of metropolises that Marie-Laure’s father constructs for her, All the Light We Cannot See’s intricacy is a beauty in itself. It is hard to put into words how enchanting the whole thing is. At the end, quick peeks at the present time answer some of the readers’ post-war questions—it shows that time can heal some wounds but it can offer no immunity when a memory decides to slice them open again; that language can be so inadequate when it brings up memories of the past; and that life is indeed worth living no matter what.
It has been a long time since I last read a gem as spellbinding as this; I will be sure to pick up more of Doerr’s other works. Five stars for an amazing read!